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Health worries, extra benefits: California Wine Country recruiters talk hiring in the coronavirus pandemic

Job candidates turn down offers because of health concerns. Others say outright they believe they’re financially better off collecting unemployment. This is the changing COVID-19 world of hiring.

The Business Journal interviewed four top North Bay recruiters to get their insight about how employers are coping: Nicole Serres, president of Star Staffing in Sonoma, Napa, Solano and other California counties; Joe Madigan, CEO of Sonoma-based Nelson Staffing, filling positions throughout the state; Karen Alary, managing partner of The Personnel Perspective in Napa and Sonoma counties; and Elizabeth Sheehan, North Bay-branch sales manager at Robert Half.

The following Q&A has been edited for clarity and brevity.

What changes have you seen in the temporary job market in the last six months?

Serres: Companies previously requested workers and integrated them throughout their workforce. Some companies now are seeking more specific skills to keep their workforce into segregated “pods,” not moving temporary employees to various departments as needed throughout the day.

Some companies now are seeking more specific skills to keep their workforce into segregated “pods.” —Nicole Serres

Sheehan: With some companies streamlining operations, (administrative/receptionist) roles were some of the first to see declines. However, as we were able to move the majority of our contractors to a remote work setup essentially overnight, we saw an immediate bounceback for accounting and finance roles. Project demands in these areas have remained fairly consistent, and we’ve also seen some steady recovery for HR-related roles.

What about in the permanent job market?

Alary: With the exception of some technical and managerial positions, there are less full-time jobs available today than six months ago. In the wine industry, we see a lot of activity in e-commerce DTC (direct-to-consumer) and more online sales positions as the industry is working at enhancing the online-buying experience for consumers.

There was some newfound comfort around hiring and onboarding remotely. —Elizabeth Sheehan

Sheehan: At the beginning of the pandemic, we hit a three- to four-week shock wave where business ground to a stop and hiring was put on hold. But after about 30 days, hiring managers found their footing and realized they needed to move forward with full-time hiring plans. We were able to help guide our clients through the virtual interview process, and I think there was some newfound comfort around hiring and onboarding remotely, and extending offers without ever having met the candidate in person.

Serres: Companies are having an increased difficulty in finding qualified candidates mostly due to three main factors: child care, worry over COVID or unemployment.

Do you have reason to believe potential job candidates have received combinations of federal and state unemployment benefits that make it less financially attractive to take a job?

Alary: Absolutely and without doubt. There are many incidences where individuals have voluntarily offered to prospective employers that they are making more money not working than what they could earn working for them. The impact to businesses and our economic recovery is significant if employers are unable to find qualified workers.

Madigan: Yes, this happened somewhat in the beginning when there was a lot of uncertainty, and especially with more junior-level roles. But the vast majority of people we work with are interested in the opportunity to secure long-term employment.

Serres: Several candidates we’ve reached out to have shared they’re making more on unemployment than the roles that are being offered. The consensus is the same for most employers locally.

Has any difficulty in getting workers caused a shift in your clients’ addressing health concerns up front or changing rate of pay?

Madigan: Initially, we saw some temporary offerings of pay-rate increases or COVID-related bonuses, but for the most part those situations have discontinued. However, employees want to know their employers care about their well-being, and we find that all responsible companies are addressing health concerns up front and with an abundance of communication.

Serres: Many clients have implemented extensive protocols to ensure employees are as protected as possible from the spread of the virus. They have stepped beyond “business as usual,” putting into place a variety of tactics that were not considered in the past: staggered starts/breaks, specific work groups (no rotation or changing to other groups) restricted to specific location in the facility, more frequent safety meetings addressing PPE use and transparency of policies. We have seen some rate increases as part of the encouragement to get workers to return to work.

Have you gained new clients from businesses or industries you haven’t worked with before?

Madigan: Yes, most of our new clients are companies that are growing or have a need to add staff within certain areas of the organization. Others are those facing recruiting challenges because of COVID-19 or who are extremely busy and need assistance with short-term projects.

Employers are using this time to be as prepared as they can be to return their workforce safely and productively. —Karen Alary

Alary: We have gained many new clients in varied industries, including A&E (architecture and engineering); manufacturing, including food manufacturing; medical, beverage — wine, craft brew and spirits — education and nonprofit. Companies are asking for HR consulting, strategic guidance and leadership training. Employers are using this time to be as prepared as they can be to return their workforce safely and productively.

Closing thoughts?

Sheehan: We know the market will eventually bounce back but what this experience has taught us, is that things can turn on a dime. A flexible staffing strategy can help employers remain nimble and relieve core staff during tough times.

Alary: This pandemic has brought to the forefront a focus on our need to be prepared in a way many of us never imagined. I believe because our community came together and built key partnerships offering their expertise, it has strengthened our resolve to get to the other side of this catastrophe.

Serres: It is important for employers to encourage employees to follow the safe health protocols at home and away from work. This is a behavior shift that we need to continue to encourage.

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